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Reviews of The Irony of Desegregation Law 1955–1995: Essays and Documents

“The author provides an interpretive analysis of major cases that gives readers a context for viewing and understanding the significance of the decisions, how they were arrived at, and how they changed precedent. Each analytical section is followed by documents such as intra-court memos, legal briefs filed by the various parties, and resolutions passed by Congress on school desegregation.

“Whitman deftly and skillfully explains the Court’s movement from initially requiring segregated schools to provide only for nondiscriminatory attendance and placement policies to a requirement that such schools be integrated. Along the way he also shows the backlash and the affected school boards’ delaying tactics. The irony to which the author refers in his title is that schools are quickly becoming resegregated, and current judicial pronouncements provide very little relief. Highly recommended.”

“The landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) has generated a vast literature. A number of scholars, among them Lino Graglia, Gary Orfield, Mark Tushnet, J. Harvie Wilkinson, and Raymond Wolters, have studied the contested course of school desegregation. Mark Whitman contributes to this growing field with a well-textured analysis of the leading cases that interpreted and sought to implement the Brown ruling. He examines both the complexities of school desegregation litigation and the often modest substantive results achieved.

“Whitman traces many of the uncertainties plaguing desegregation law to the Brown decision itself. Was Brown intended to eliminate state-imposed racial categories, or to embrace an affirmative duty to achieve integration? Although in 1954 most observers understood the decision simply to outlaw racial segregation, by the mid-1960s courts increasingly insisted upon a degree of actual integration. Courts began to infer segregative intent from policies that appeared to be neutral on the face of them — such as neighborhood schools — as well as from circumstances beyond school board control. As a result, the link between past discrimination and judicial findings of constitutional violation grew attenuated. Indeed, some judges based desegregation remedies more on educational theories about the benefits of racially diverse schools than on past illegal conduct. In this light, the lines separating city and suburban schools appeared suspect. Moreover, the drive for school integration spread beyond the South to northern and western communities. Yet as the remedies imposed grew more sweeping, the rationale articulated by the Supreme Court became strained and confused.

“Whitman treats the formulation of desegregation law within a broad context of public opinion, political currents, and constitutional thought. According to Whitman, a number of factors coalesced to undermine the social experiment of school integration. Busing and proposed interdistrict remedies chilled public support. Massive demographic changes in urban areas frustrated desegregation plans. Eventually, prominent black scholars challenged the integrationist premise as demeaning and cast doubt on the supposed educational advantages. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court in the 1990s slowly retreated from judicial supervision of racial balance in schools. ‘It is highly doubtful,’ Whitman aptly observes, ‘that a revolution as profound as the long-term integration of America’s schools could have been accomplished by judicial fiat under any long-term circumstances’ (p. x). This work reminds us that judicial behavior is restrained by political realities. Thus, Whitman lends support to the thesis of Gerald N. Rosenberg (The Hollow Hope [Chicago, 1991]) that courts have limited capacity to achieve social reform.

“The irony in Whitman’s view is that by the end of the twentieth century school desegregation law has seemingly returned to the basic nondiscrimination principle of Brown. The author certainly stresses the significance of Brown in eliminating formal segregation, but he suggests that American society is not prepared to support a more aggressive push for school integration. Although he does not break new ground, Whitman has provided a perceptive synthesis of the struggle over school desegregation. A unique feature of this volume is the inclusion of excerpts from judicial opinions, attorneys’ briefs, and articles at the end of each chapter. Accessible to both scholars and students, The Irony of Desegregation Law will be welcomed by a wide audience.”
The Journal of Southern History